TAMPA — Brett Connolly sat in his locker room stall after Capitals practice Wednesday, rubbing the palms of his hands across his face as he racked his brain before rattling off the list of his former Tampa Bay teammates still on the Lightning’s roster.
Steven Stamkos. Victor Hedman. Ondrej Palat. Tyler Johnson. Alex Killorn. Nikita Kucherov. Andrei Vasilevskiy. All were part of Tampa Bay’s 2014-15 run to the Stanley Cup final.
Drafted sixth overall by Tampa Bay in the 2010 NHL entry draft, Connolly spent the first three and a half years of his career with the Lightning before the organization traded him to Boston midseason in 2014-15, forcing him to watch Tampa Bay’s postseason run from afar.
“I think you want it to work out where you are drafted, but sometimes it doesn’t,” Connolly said of his time in Tampa. “I feel like I have gotten better as my career has gone on. I feel like I’ve had to find myself. I’ve had some tough years, trying to find my game and I’ve managed a way to stick with it and really do that the last couple years.”
Now, in the upcoming Eastern Conference finals, Connolly will face his former team and familiar faces on the ice, as the eight-year NHL veteran looks to contribute in a much more stable role in the Capitals’ bottom six during his second postseason run.
“It’s good to know and compete against them [Tampa] and try to make it hard on them and be a difference maker,” Connolly said. “I can’t wait to get going. It is where it all started.”
Through 12 games this postseason, Connolly has averaged 12:41 of ice time to go with his first postseason goals in Game 2 and Game 5 of the Capitals’ second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 5, Connolly scored 33 seconds after John Carlson’s first period goal to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead en route to a 6-3 victory. Connolly also had the primary assist on the game-winning goal by Lars Eller during the second overtime of Game 3 that lifted the Capitals to a 3-2 victory in their first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“You just gain more confidence, and I am really confident in my game right now, and I just want to go there and contribute and help this team ultimately get past these guys,” Connolly, who skated on the third line alongside Chandler Stephenson and center Travis Boyd during Wednesday’s practice. “That would mean a lot for sure.
“You feel a lot better when you are apart of it and just want to try to be a part of this one, too.”
While Connolly made his playoff debut last season, the forward was scratched for the final six games against the Penguins. In the Capitals’ first three playoff games against Toronto last year, Connolly was on the ice for more than 10 minutes each game — two of the three being overtime losses — before seeing his ice time decline — not breaking 6:12 — in his next four appearances.
“Last year, it was tough,” Connolly said. “We had a lot of good players. We had a great team on paper. So decisions have to be made. I think for a coach, you got to make decisions based on what you think at that time.
“Was I happy about it? No. But there is nothing you can do about it. At the end of the day that is Barry’s call and that is why he is the head coach.”
Connolly came to the Capitals in 2016, when his time with Boston ended because the Bruins didn’t want to resign the winger after he scored nine goals in 2015-16 season. As an unrestricted free agent, Connolly joined Washington on a one-year, $850,000 deal. In his first year with the Capitals, he had a career-high 15 regular season goals and eight assists. Washington then re-signed Connolly to a two-year, $3 million contract in June, affording him an opportunity for springtime redemption.
“He learned from the experience last year,” said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz. “He’s just been more involved. He’s had good production. He’s always dangerous with his release … I think he’s done a better job.”
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